Is this a Canadian poet?
Is this Canadian poetry?
I photo-shopped the above image of myself because I’ve never taken such a staged picture of myself. And I’ve never really experienced an identity crisis of nationality since immigrating from the United States to Canada. But I have been thinking about nationality lately. When I was living in the United States, I never described myself as an American poet. And these days, a full-fledged citizen of Canada and a resident for almost five years, I don’t generally refer to myself as a Canadian poet. I’ve long harboured a fantasy of belonging to a city-state, and when I was in the United States, I referred to myself as a New Orleans poet, just as now, in Canada, I call myself a Toronto poet.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with both the United States and Canada. Canada: health care system rocks, winter sucks. United States: Obama rocks (most of the time); Homeland Security, the Patriot Act, and Total Information Awareness (remember that short-lived megalomanic agency?) suck. In New Orleans, at the height of terrorist paranoia and duct tape frenzy, I was threatened with arrest for taking photographs, on public ground, of well-known monumental sculptures in front of a bank. That sucked.
But my identity was never very dependent on nationality. Especially since Desert Storm, I haven’t self-identified as American, but I have always defined myself in part as Cajun. For me, the local or marginal identity, determined by patterns of settlement, wins out over the relatively artificial boundaries of nationhood. Even so, although I consider myself Cajun, not only by virtue of my father being Cajun but also because I was steeped in Cajun culture since birth, I was at the same time always looking over the shoulders of the culture, to an extent experiencing it vicariously. In Cajun country, I’m a Cajun and something of an alien. And now I live in Canada as a Canadian citizen.
Canada’s identity has historically been shaped, in part, by its conscientious differentiation from the cultural behemoth south of the 49th parallel: to generalize, collectivism over individualism, peaceful resolution over escalation and violent enforcement, diplomacy and compromise over chauvinism and autocracy. However, even though I’m more sympathetic to such professed Canadian ideals, I don’t feel a strong desire to differentiate my poetry by nationality. In matters of culture (not so much pop culture, in which a certain amount of American hegemony is guaranteed by television, film, and commercial culture), I’m all for cross-pollination. I’ve been influenced by poets from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Japan, Hungary, Iran, Australia, Portugal, Ancient Greece, Finland . . . and the list goes on.
Yet the reality is that Canadian government grants do not generally encourage reading venues to invite American poets (though this might be relaxing a little). Customs duties and taxes ensure that one is far less likely to find American poets on the shelves of Canadian bookstores. And vice versa, I hasten to add. Some American poets I knew were hard-pressed to name a single Canadian poet. I plead guilty to having been fairly ignorant, with some exceptions, of Canadian poetry before my move here. And I continue to bridge the knowledge and appreciation gap.
Another reality is the anthology by nationhood. The anthology of Canadian poetry is a recurring staple in the poetry publishing world and a vexed one because of issues of inclusion and exclusion (a nature of the anthology beast) as these issues collide with issues of ethnicity and political borders. To see how complex the issue can become, read George Elliotte Clarke’s essay “Must All Blackness Be American?: Locating Canada in Borden’s ‘Tightrope Time,’ or Nationalizing Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic.”
I’ve yet to see the hybrid American-Canadian anthology. Have I truly crossed the border poetically when I’m included in a Canadian anthology? I was recently featured in a Canadian online magazine, ditch, as a Canadian poet. There I was, in the inner circle along with the true-blooded Canadians, born under the loving gaze of Queen Elizabeth. Never having switched countries before, this was a new experience. I felt as though my mask of Canadian-ness might slip off at any moment and I would be revealed as a poser.
So am I a Canadian poet? I remember the first grant that I got, two years after moving to Canada as a Permanent Resident—a Work-in-Progress grant from the Ontario Arts Council. A couple of my Canadian poet friends expressed surprise that I was officially qualified to apply for such a grant. Obviously, for granting purposes, I was as Canadian as the true children of the True North.
What about my poetry – is there anything “Canadian” (however that might be defined) about it? A good deal of my poetry stems from my experience in the moment, wherever I happen to be: walking through downtown New Orleans, riding the Métro in Paris, or sitting in my Canadian apartment gazing at Canadian clouds drifting across the northern skies. As soon as I moved up here, my surroundings crept into my poems: ice and snow, especially, but also street scenes and people.
As my new book, Sonnets, which was written entirely in Canada funded by a grant from the Ontario Arts Council, is collected in libraries in Canada and the United States, it’s interesting to note that Canadian libraries use the classification for a Canadian poet, and American libraries use the classification for an American poet. That’s fine by me—I’m happy to be claimed by both countries.
And what do/should I call myself? Am I a hyphenated Canadian? I’ve read a bit about the dilemma of immigrants regarding whether or not to hyphenate the old and the new countries: Somali-Canadian, for example. And some bemoan perceived racial overtones in the tendency to hyphenating all but native-English-speaking immigrants of European descent. “British-Canadian” and “American-Canadian” are less frequently heard expressions than, say, Pakistani-Canadian. And “American expat” is heard more frequently than “Chinese expat.” I hyphenated myself once recently—American-Canadian—for a bio, just to try it on for size. It felt odd. First, to me the hyphenation implies that one is retaining a connection to the cultural heritage from the country of origin, which doesn’t ring true to me. Maybe Cajun-Canadian would be more accurate. Also, there’s a part of me—the part that made me want to move here—that wanted to be just “Canadian.”
I don’t think that I can give a straight or easy answer to the question of whether or not am—or feel—Canadian. “Canadian” to an immigrant might not be a fact so much as an assumed identity. Facts: I was born in El Dorado, Arkansas; I’ve lived most of my life in Louisiana; I came to Canada as a Permanent Resident in October 2005; I’ve lived in Toronto for almost five years; I’m now a Canadian citizen as well as an American citizen; my ancestors were Acadians in present-day Nova Scotia, then Acadie (and, interesting sidenote, until a generation or so ago, there were still older Cajun folk in Louisiana who referred—not without a tinge of disdain—to “les Américains” and who retained a distant memory of the Mi’kmaqs).
I’m ambivalent regarding a sense of national belonging as an American or a Canadian. No doubt part of that lack of nationalistic pride or fervour stems from my friendship with anarchists in New Orleans and France for many years and my interest in anarchist critique, historically, of the nation-state. I’ve never been the patriotic type.
But I do identify ethnically as a Cajun. And since making my recent “pilgrimages” to Nova Scotia, the land of my French ancestors, I’ve come to feel a sense of closeness to the people living in the remaining Acadian towns and villages of southwestern Nova Scotia, such as West Pubnico and Church Point. Talking with the Acadian descendants in Nova Scotia, I sometimes had the eerie feeling that I had been teleported to rural south-central Louisiana. It wasn’t only the French names and language, it was the gregariousness, the unreserved joking, the welcoming of strangers, the nicknames, the proclivity for satirical mimicry and for storytelling, the close-knit community.
I suppose I am something of a poser. I pose as a Canadian poet for grants because I can legitimately do so—I have for several years now qualified for grants issued by the governments of Canada, Ontario, and Toronto. And I’m extremely grateful for the privilege to live in a country where the government actually encourages the arts. When I first moved to Canada, I was fascinated by the new currency (loonies and toonies: cool) and by something in very small print on the twenty-dollar bill that still jolts me into an awareness of Canadian difference. I was accustomed to symbols of authority, monotheism, and divine providence on American paper currency. On the Canadian twenty-dollar bill, I saw images of sculptures by Bill Reid, a Canadian artist depicting aspects of the Haida culture of Canada’s northwest coast and, in tiny print, the words of French-Canadian poet Gabrielle Roy: “Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?”
Some might shrug and say, “lip service”—especially considering recent budget cuts to the arts in Canada. Nonetheless, that statement as well as the generous granting system (generous especially when compared to comparable government funding in the United States) tends to create an atmosphere in which the arts are valued.
So as far as the government is concerned, I’m Canadian. And I pose as a Canadian poet for anthologies with the rationale that most of the poetry that I’m writing is born in Canada (does that make my poetic progeny second-generation Canadian?).
I also pose as an American poet because, after all, my poetic lineage is largely and undeniably American since I wasn’t exposed to much Canadian poetry when I started writing poetry in earnest. And besides, my American/Southern accent is hard to hide. Try as I might to switch to “zed” and to learn the subtleties of interjecting “eh” in conversation, I’m not sure I’ll ever pass the Canadian shibboleth.
And aware as I am of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) manifestations of anti-Americanism, I trust that most people involved in the arts are enlightened enough not to harbour irrational prejudices against those Americans who have decided, for whatever reason, to leave the United States and embrace Canada. Surely attitudes have changed since the time when a Czech-Canadian painter was denied a grant by the Canada Council of the Arts because, as he was told by the panel, his work wasn’t “Canadian” enough. Following that rejection, he didn’t change his style but if you look closely, he has subtly worked into some of his paintings a maple leaf, as if to say with wry humour, ok, now is my work Canadian enough? Nonetheless, a Canadian press not long ago turned down a manuscript of mine because it was deemed to be “too American.” Is there a lingering bias against Canadian poets born in the United States? Does this reflect cultural protectionism, and if so, is there any place for this in decisions about grants and publications?
The 49th parallel isn’t meaningless—of course, Canadian poetry has its own heritage, lineages, traditions, schools, tendencies, and so on. I’ve noticed a more prevalent concern with political issues—ecology, feminism, poverty, diversity—in both mainstream and avant verse. And there is an ongoing fascination among many Canadian poets, especially of the experimental persuasion, with conceptual poetry: oulipian gestures seem to thrive here among certain poets and readers. Molly Peacock, in her forward to Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets, notes another difference and gives the following advice for Americans reading that anthology:
“Don’t panic if each poem doesn’t start with a bang. While American poets train for the high-diving board, jackknifing into the deep end of the pool, Canadian poets presume that readers will let them wade out until their feet no longer touch bottom. So if you are used to the fast splash of the American poem, a Canadian poem may seem as interminable as a raga is to the listeners of a pop song. In other words, you may feel yourself wondering when these poets will get to their points. In fact, there will probably be several points; Canadian time is time unwinding, not time in a flash.” (xiv)
I could say something similar (though probably not as eloquently as Molly) about some American poetry. Nonetheless, broad strokes are useful for conceptualizing cultural difference. And Sina Queyras has some trenchant observations, in her introduction to that anthology, of some of the characteristics and tendencies in Canadian poetry, especially regarding attitudes toward nature. Such anthologies, designed to introduce Americans to Canadian work that deserves to be appreciated, are needed to bridge the gap of ignorance on the part of American readers. That kind of cultural exchange can only be a healthy thing.
The cultural differences between Canada and the United States are also reflected in daily life, and I can’t write an essay about being an American poet in Canada without commenting on such differences that I immediately became aware of when I set foot in Toronto in February 2004 to get a feel for the city where I wanted to relocate. Observing the advertising in the streets and subways, I noticed that the atmosphere of crass commercialism and materialism to which I was accustomed was a little toned down, and public service billboards were more frequent. The lack of racial tension on the streets was a refreshing change from the charged and often angry atmosphere in New Orleans, a city that still carries the baggage of historical racism. The rude, sexist comments by men in urban American streets were simply non-existent here. Once, as I was emerging from a Toronto subway station, a young man called out to me, smiling, “Looking good tonight!” It was sweetly appreciative; I smiled back.
And I felt relatively safe in Toronto. I remember walking after dark with another woman to a poetry reading soon after I moved here. She decided to take a short cut through a park. I was terrified. “Are you sure it’s safe?” I asked. She just laughed and kept walking. I followed, looking around warily. I don’t think she realized the extent to which people in New Orleans are regularly mugged and even killed in parks. Tourists wandering into New Orleans’ famous parks and cemeteries are easy targets. “Another tourist shot in Armstrong Park” became an unfortunate cliche. New Orleans remains the murder capital of the United States—an extreme example, perhaps, but all major American cities struggle with similar kinds of problems—poverty, crime, racism, poor education, extreme divisions of wealth and poverty, and the ill-effects of decades of unaffordable or unavailable health care and other social services. Canadian cities struggle with some of these issues as well, but generally speaking, the problems are not as extreme as in the United States.
I’m thrilled to be living in Canada, and I have come to love Toronto. I live downtown, in the heart of Old Toronto, in a cooperative apartment complex. The building is owned by a non-profit corporation; thus there is no landlord charging exorbitant rent while neglecting repairs. When I first moved here, I felt like Mary Tyler Moore in Minneapolis, ecstatically tossing her hat into the air (if you’ll pardon the American pop culture reference). After experiencing the demoralization of life in New Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina, I was elated to live in a city and a country with a different social ethos.
As happy as I am to be here, I suppose I will continue to side-step the issue of Canadian-ness by simply saying that I’m a Toronto poet or to be even more neutral that I’m a poet based in Toronto. But I will also say that living in Canada has been extraordinarily good for me, and I wish I’d moved here years ago. I love many aspects of this country like I never loved the United States. I’ve come to admire many Canadian poets whose work I was never exposed to before I moved here. I’m here to stay.
Am I masking, through my ambivalence, a secret desire to be Canadian, cut and dried, strong and free? No doubt. Part of me likes the idea of being Canadian. But I also know that the issues of nationality, ethnicity, and identity are a lot more complicated, for those born in Canada as well.
My eyes are blue-green. Some days I see them as blue, other days as green. I can talk about the genetics of the colour, the lineage of ancestors from whom I inherited either colour, the factors that influence the colour that I perceive on a given day (such as the clothes I’m wearing, or my lover describing them as blue). I can talk a lot about those things. But deciding which side of the colour fence I’m on is just not something I’m very passionate about.